Missouri pursues $40M nuclear medicine deal for isotope production

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The University of Missouri has initiated a project that could potentially make the university the producer of half the supply of molybdenum-99 in the United States within four years.

The project would involve construction of $40 million facility near the MU Research Reactor (MURR) and would boost the local economy through construction jobs and the addition of 25 to 30 full-time positions at the reactor, according Ralph Butler, reactor director at MURR.

Butler wants the nuclear reactor to become the only domestic producer of the parent isotope to technetium-99, as there are only four major worldwide suppliers of molybdenum-99 and no domestic suppliers.

The need for a U.S. producer was highlighted in 2007 when the temporary shutdown of a nuclear reactor in Canada caused a shortage of the radioisotope.

The MURR is finishing a two-year feasibility study to see whether the reactor would be capable of producing molybdenum-99 and also whether the reactor’s method of using low-enriched uranium to produce the radioisotope works. Butler said a study about using low-enriched uranium is being reviewed by the Department of Energy and should be released in early January. Although he said that has not seen the final report, he expects "positive results" and is confident that the studies will show that MU could produce up to 50 percent of the nation’s molybdenum-99 supply.

The reactor has been able to produce small amounts of molybdenum-99 in research studies using low-enriched uranium. To be able to commercially produce the isotope, MU could need to build and license a new 20,000-square-foot, $40 million facility adjacent to the research reactor.

MU recently received a $1.1 million grant from the Missouri Life Sciences Trust Fund to initiate design of the new facility, and officials have been in talks with potential donors to help fund it, Butler said.

MURR already produces a number of commercial radiopharmaceuticals, including TheraSphere, which is used to treat inoperable liver tumors by directing microscopic radioactive glass beads through blood vessels to attack the tumor without damaging surrounding tissue. Butler said development and production of TheraSphere and other radiopharmaceuticals are examples of how projects at the research reactor pay for themselves, and similar results are expected with molybdenum-99.